Another Salvo in the Tenure Debate

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Should professors have tenure? The question, debated recently on this blog, misses the mark—as do the usual answers, whether “yes,” “no,” or “maybe.”

On the “no” side, it is argued that tenure protects incompetent spongers. A very reliable (tenured) colleague, at a university that shall remain nameless, tells me of professors whose interests are no longer intellectual and who spend their time playing the real estate market. Their research productivity, measured in grant dollars or papers, is low; thus, the university is angry. Their teaching is also substandard, yet not quite abysmal enough to get them fired. To urge them to resign, the department punishes them… by assigning extra teaching!

On the “yes” side, it is argued that tenure protects academic freedom. That point is made by my colleague on this blog Dan Hamermesh. Ten years ago I agreed with him. I would not have imagined my future self happy as an associate professor at Olin College of Engineering: Olin offers six-year renewable contracts instead of tenure. Now I see Olin’s system as a reasonable alternative to tenure, for I no longer believe that tenure supports academic freedom. In this I have been influenced by the thought-provoking chapter on tenure and academic freedom in the book, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It.

I may have also changed my view because of the cognitive dissonance created by teaching at an institution without tenure. However, it cannot be the whole story. Keynes famously said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” The facts have changed in the almost 100 years since the origins of the tenure system, when the impetus was academic freedom.

The key case in the creation of the tenure system was that of Scott Nearing. Then an assistant professor in economics at the Wharton School of Business, he was fired by the University of Pennsylvania for, among other progressive views, opposing child labor. (The firing happened in 1915: “Hold no view before its appointed time.”) Explaining the dismissal, the University Provost said, “I do not believe in muzzling any member of the faculty. I do believe, however, that no man may go too far.” One trustee, J. Levering Jones, when interviewed about the dismissal, said, “When I dismiss a stenographer, do I have to give a public reason?” Nearing won his lawsuit. His case led eventually to the American system of faculty tenure whereby professors could hope to be more than stenographers to power.

However, tenure cannot protect academic freedom if the freedom is not exercised. I therefore propose the following test for the academic-freedom benefit of tenure: the prevalence of tenured professors using academic freedom, i.e. doing intellectual or social projects for which they would be fired without tenure. Here’s my list of such faculty:

- Howard Zinn (now deceased), longtime history professor at Boston University. One of the most popular teachers on campus, he was said to be loathed by the university’s former president John Silber (which may be why Zinn received no raises for many years until his retirement in 1988).

- Isaac Asimov (now deceased), professor of biochemistry at the Boston University School of Medicine. In his autobiography It’s Been a Good Life, he tells of how he was an outstanding and popular teacher and hated research; having grown up reading his wonderful science books, I can easily believe in his amazing teaching ability. Even though it benefited students, his choice almost got him fired, despite his having tenure; without tenure he would have certainly been fired.

- John Belcher, a physics professor at MIT, who has focused his recent research on improving the teaching of first-year university physics. The physics department is supportive, but elite research universities are generally hostile to teaching and, as with Asimov at the Boston University School of Medicine, that focus might have cost Belcher his job if he did not have tenure.

I don’t include Noam Chomsky: As the most cited living scholar, he was not likely to be fired by MIT even if he did not have tenure. The resulting list is very short, partly due to my ignorance (please suggest additions!). However, even with additions I expect that the list will be short. Of the list of three, only one, John Belcher, is alive and active. Tenure hardly protects academic freedom, for hardly anyone is using that freedom.

In contrast, there have been several public examples of professors who lost their jobs before tenure, likely for exercising their academic freedom:

- David Noble (now deceased), who was denied tenure in the Science, Technology, and Society department at MIT. He eventually settled at York University in Canada.

- Ignacio Chapela, who at first was denied tenure at UC Berkeley. He eventually received tenure after a lawsuit, a public campaign, and the arrival of a new chancellor, Robert Birgeneau (a native of Canada).

- Joel Westheimer at NYU’s School of Education. After a lawsuit and public campaign, NYU expunged their denial of tenure and gave Westheimer back pay. Westheimer has since settled at the University of Ottawa in Canada.

- Norman Finkelstein at DePaul University, for his feud with Alan Dershowitz. He has no current academic position.

- David Graeber, denied pre-tenure reappointment at Yale’s anthropology department, despite being called “the best anthropological theorist of his generation from anywhere in the world” (quote from Prof. Maurice Bloch’s letter). He has since settled at Goldsmiths College, University of London.

The existence of tenure, rather than protecting academic freedom, turns the pre-tenure years into a long political vetting. (In the preceding list, I am struck by the tolerant influence of Canadians and Canada. This tolerance has a long history: After the American war of independence, Canada, then called British North America, accepted tens of thousands of Loyalist emigrants.)

The long vetting selects for someone who can usually be trusted not to use his or her freedom (for what the British call “a safe pair of hands”). However, even if politics works that way, universities should not. Universities are a resource for a society to challenge its habits and beliefs. This challenge cannot happen if the challengers are cut off at the knees by a system of political and cultural vetting. The tenure process has become an outsized and even more secretive version of the peer-review process, whose success in producing conformity has been eloquently criticized by Thomas Gold.

What should we do? First, recognize that tenure is no protection from an enraged public. Howard Zinn lost his tenured position as chair of the history department at Spelman College in Atlanta, because of his civil-rights activism in the 1960s. Instead of debating the meager protections that a few people have and even fewer use, we need a system that spreads freedom of speech throughout the society. We need everyone to have free speech so that, as self-governing citizens, we may hear and decide based upon the widest diversity of ideas—a philosophy of freedom eloquently expressed by Alexander Meiklejohn in Free Speech and its Relation to Self-Government (1948).

The United States indeed has the most legal freedom of speech of any country that I know. The Constitution entrenches this right. Court rulings have mostly uprooted impediments such as sedition and libel laws.

However, the United States offers far less actual freedom of speech. At-will employment, the legal doctrine that one can be fired for pretty much any reason (with a few exceptions), means that many Americans have limited speech in the workplace. (See for example Speechless: The Erosion of Free Expression in the American Workplace.) Another example is my friend Jeff Schmidt, who, despite excellent job performance, was fired as an editor at the journal Physics Today likely because of the ideas in his book, Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-battering System That Shapes Their Lives.

With the workplace such a large part of the day (of the wealthy democracies, Americans’ work hours are among the highest) and a job so essential to survival (among the residents of wealthy countries, jobless Americans depend on one of the thinnest social safety nets), the ethics accepted in the workplace become the ethics of the society.

Perhaps I am interested in freedom of speech because I am often outspoken. When I lived in England, being outspoken meant others would listen and argue. That was fine. Returning to America, I started hearing a new phrase, “But tell us what you really think.” At first it puzzled me because I was doing just that. Then the penny dropped: It was an ironic way to say, “If it is anything controversial, please under no circumstances tell me what you really think!”

If the populace does not value free discussion, constitutional provisions or tenure policies protecting it are mere legal tissue paper. Instead of debating whether faculty should have tenure, we need a debate about how real free speech can be extended across American society far beyond the university.

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  1. Derick says:

    The problems with tenure aren’t only the one you mentioned. It also cripples the academic freedom of younger professors, and of those who don’t agree with tenure or the views of those controlling who gets tenure, and creates a “my boys” kind of culture.

    Tenure, like all variants of guild socialism, creates an autocracy worse than any of the kind it’s designed to challenge.

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  2. Derick says:

    The problems with tenure aren’t only the one you mentioned.

    It also cripples the academic freedom of younger professors, and of those who don’t agree with tenure or the views of those controlling who gets tenure. It creates a “my boys” kind of culture.

    Tenure, like all variants of guild socialism, creates an autocracy worse than any of the kind it’s designed to challenge.

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  3. Tylerh says:

    Let me add one more name to the tenure-promotes-freedom list:

    Anita Hill.

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  4. Enter your name... says:

    Independent of the Tenure debate going on in the comments I do believe that as a society we do need to address “how real free speech can be extended across American society far beyond the university”. It is true that we self censor a great deal in this country everyday at work and frequently in private social life. I too find myself unwilling to discuss controversial topics. Those conversations seem to only lead to anger. How is it that in England people can listen and argue and not get angry?

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  5. Mike B says:

    First can you please refrain from linking to so many book promotion sites? I know your heart is in the right place, but you sort of come off like a shill. When promoting free speech and free discussion it helps to link to resources that someone isn’t trying to charge for.

    Second, you should add Conrad Volz to your list who was a professor at the University of Pittsburgh Public Health School and took the step of resigning when his Dean told him to stop publicly talking about the environmental health risks caused by hydraulic fracturing gas drilling (a politically powerful force in Pennsylvania, full story here http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/440/game-changer )

    Anyway, yes it would be great if there was more freedom of debate in our society. Of course finding an equitable way to do this such that employees cannot persist in damaging the reputation of their employers through their own personal views and opinions will be difficult. While the anonymity that the internet provides has paved the way for previously unrivaled amounts of free and open discussion, one could say that the simultaneous flattening of authority has pushed discourse off scale in the opposite direction. With too many “experts” and not enough real people , completely un-moderated discussion can lead to sub-optimal results.

    Still, while I agree with your sentiments, they should only come as a package deal. Simply eliminating tenure won’t solve the speech issues. They will only eliminate that one vestige of freedom, even if it is mostly symbolic, while doing nothing to replace it. In all honesty tenure has a more important role in maintain teacher quality than, as you believe, undermining it. The reason why is that you are operating from the mistaken belief that University administrators care about teaching and instructional quality…and I guess they do, but only to a point. While they don’t want someone at lets say the 50th percentile or even the 75th percentile in terms of ability, past a certain level of quality their value for money calculations are going move in the other direction. So while the poor teachers will clearly be fired, the very best teachers with the most experience (and therefore the highest salaries) will also be let go. It doesn’t matter if they are in the 99% percentile because the university will be able to bring in a younger, 90th percentile professor for a great deal less money. From their point of view the students won’t know the difference and they’ll lower their costs.

    If we lived in a perfect world and Administrators could be trusted to reward and best instruction and research you would have a point, but the world isn’t perfect and budgetary matters before all else. Without tenure all of those professors in the 50-80 year old age bracket…those professors that are their own institutions and provide the most unique instruction, they would be first out the door, replaced by younger, cheaper talent that is happy to be earning a bit more than their meager Post-Doc wages.

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  6. Joshua Northey says:

    As a pretty academically minded person who doesn’t feel that invested in social graces my “lack of tact” or “willingness to speak truth to power” or whatever you want to call it has gotten me dismissed from one job where I had “excellent and nearly perfect performance” just a week before hand, and made it so I was not welcome back at a position where I was putting out 4 times the work product of my peers.

    My fatal flaw, answering questions my superiors asked about what could be changed or improved frankly.

    I am struck that academics are so considered about freedom of speech and the importance to job security in enabling people to do their job well, when most people have absolutely none of it and seem to function.

    Hell I almost didn’t get this job because during the interview they asked me what I didn’t like about my last job and I gave them an extensive, thoughtful, and detailed list (just like I had about the things I liked about it). What happened next is rather complicated, but in the end I got the job and I was told in no uncertain terms that I should under no circumstance respond to such questions truthfully in the business environment.

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    • Ulysses says:

      People can, and are, fired/hired/un-hired/promoted/demoted because of every possible reason every day. There are merely certain reasons that aren’t allowed to be “official.”

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  7. Laura says:

    University tenure still makes sense today – the requirements of research and publication plus teaching leave little room for the day-to-day water-cooler bs that the everyday worker needs to engage in, to keep his job. Many of the “brains of the world” doing the proper research and teaching and brilliant medical work don’t have the necessary social skills to keep their jobs the way the regular working folk do, so I say, yes – please protect the Ivory Tower – I believe there are many many gains to society – so we must protect the socially ill-equipped. The absent-minded professor is not a myth…..it may be a bit more Asperberger-minded professor….but it is a reality.

    That said, I would agree that all public elementary, middle school and high school teachers should be taken off of any sort of tenure system. In fact, I think they should be tested every year to see if they have the required skills to teach the subjects they currently are expected to teach. Putting the focus on eliminating tenure in the university system seems completely misguided – the focus should be on eliminating tenure on the public elementary and secondary systems – not the college/uni system.

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  8. mfw13 says:

    I think the somewhat larger problem is the way in which the cost of supporting research is being dumped on undergraduates via tuition increases. Most tenured professors have their salaries paid with the money generated by tuition payments, yet often do not teach or otherwise interact with undergraduates.

    One of the reasons why a good community college usually provides far better value for $$$ than a full-fledged 4-year university.

    Perhaps the research arms of unversities should be separated from the teaching arms so that they are forced to become economically self-sufficient. If your research isn’t useful or relevant enough to attract grant money, then you lose your job.

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